Howard Community College (HCC), a public community college in Columbia, Maryland, has named Dr. Daria J. Willis as its fifth president. Willis is the first person in her family to go to college. She became a student parent during her first year at Florida A&M University (FAMU) when she was 19 years old.
She told Essence, “I struggled; I had a lot of obstacles, but I got myself back together and graduated magna cum laude.” She later earned a Master’s degree from FAMU and a Ph.D. from Florida State University.
Willis began her academic career at Lone Star College in Houston. She worked her way up the administrative ladder to become provost of Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York. She went on to become the first African-American president of Washington State’s Everett Community College.
Finally, in 2021, she received a call that led to her appointment as president of Howard Community College in Columbia, becoming the college’s second African-American president, succeeding Kathleen Hetherington, who retired after 14 years as president.
“I’m always preaching to people that if you give us a chance, then students like me will ascend to these positions as well,” Willis remarked.
As president, Willis makes every effort to interact with students, even attending dance rehearsals, taking the honorary jump ball at basketball games, and interviewing community members in her Instagram Live series, “Conversations from the Couch.”
She told The Baltimore Sun, “I want students to see that there’s a new way that a president can be and you don’t have to fit this bubble. I can get suited and booted with the best of them when it’s time to do that, but on campus, I want students to see me for who I am.”
According to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, community colleges grant certificates to Black students at a higher rate than other groups.
The mother or mothers underlined the importance of community colleges, saying, “We’re [community colleges are] going to be the reason why people get back to work in this country. I kind of see us as very similar to the mission and vision and values of HBCUs.”
“But when you get down to the core of why we’re here, we educate over half of the student population within the country. That is phenomenal, and then when you look at how many of our students transfer to a four-year institution, to an HBCU, to Hispanic serving institutions, they are taking the good majority of our students.”
She was named a living legend earlier this year by the Howard County Council in recognition of her services to education, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Willis is in charge of overseeing the construction of a 193,000-square-foot Mathematics and Athletic Complex, which is scheduled to open next year, as well as the refurbishment of the college’s student health center.
When completed, it will be a fully staffed clinic offering a variety of reproductive health services such as gynecological and breast exams, STD testing, and contraception.
In September, the county contributed $1 million to the wellness center project.